Valkyrie Chapter 12
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
She could still hear their cries as the smoke burned her lungs and filled her nostrils. The heat reminded her of the nightmare that had plagued her for so long. Eadra opened her eyes but could barely see through the haze. She coughed, pain stabbing her sides from the beating the Blades had given her.
You deserved this. It was hard to tell if the voice was real or imagined. Eadra lifted her head and locked her jaw. She could still feel where they had kicked her along her spine. It had to be a trick from the heat and thick smoke, but she could see her younger self standing over the trapdoor just a few feet away.
She was wearing the same leather-lined mail armor Eadra remembered donning so often. Contempt was written on her face. Her eyes full of pity.
‘So, this is how we die?’ she asked. ‘How you die?’
“Shut up!” Eadra coughed. It was so foolish arguing with yourself. It was even more foolish arguing in the face of death. No, I’m not going to die. The Keeper can’t have me yet!
Eadra pushed herself up and the visage of her younger self faded into the thick smoke. She thought of Bodvar and Frey, anger strengthening her enough to drag herself across the floorboards. Her body screamed in protest, her sides tightening and legs shaking from the strain. Every breath was labored, and her broken wrist still felt as if it were on fire.
The fire was growing in intensity as the flames crackled above her. From the corner of her eye Eadra could see one of the beams starting to give. She could feel her strength waning. Her vision blurring.
Eadra flexed her hand and screamed. The pain of her wrist was excruciating, like a knife slicing it way up her forearm. There was snap above her. The other support beams were weakening.
The trapdoor was just within reach now and Eadra stretched out toward it pulling herself closer. The effort made her lungs feel as if they were filled with metal shards. She coughed again, her sides protesting; the heat becoming unbearable.
Straining, she slung the trapdoor open, looked down the steep stairs and into the cellar. “Karien…” she wheezed. “I swear I will kill them for this.”
Eadra pulled herself through, she knew it was unlikely the Immortal of War had heard her or even cared. Still, as she fell tumbled down the stairs toward the cellar floor and before darkness claimed her, Eadra found herself thinking about what would happen if Karian had?
The trip was relatively quiet and most of the other traders had gone their separate ways after the last village. Wulf looked at Lok, then at the two traders still traveling with them. They seemed nervous as if hiding some big secret.
It was clear they were heading to Budir. Why are they so on edge? Budir was a nothing of a village. Too far north for anyone to truly care about and small enough to avoid Viktor’s taxes and attention. It was the perfect place to live in exile.
“We’ll should arrive by dusk,” Lok spoke up. “You won’t have to worry about hunting tonight.”
“I didn’t think there was Budir.”
The old trader bit his lip. “I have a friend there that provides for us on our trips this way.”
Wulf looked glanced over his shoulder at the back of the wagon. There were still a lot of goods to unload. The other two were just as full.
“Tell me, Ran, how do you know about Budir?”
Wulf shrugged. “I was tracking someone a few years ago. I happened upon their body in the snows just a mile from the village.”
The older trader smiled. “I take it that you didn’t get paid for the corpse?”
“No, I did,” Wulf replied. “He still had the knife he stole on him. More to the point, I happened upon one of the villagers shortly after. The man was hunting snow rabbits.”
Lok laughed. “That sounds like Sigurd. He makes a good stew out of them.”
Wulf nodded. “I was surprised when I tasted it. I was also more surprised by how hospitable the people of Budir were.”
Lok was still guarded, but Wulf could tell the man was trying not to appear so. It was strange considering the enchantment the old trader had placed on him. “I’ll keep my word, Lok.”
“Well considering you haven’t fallen over dead in agonizing pain I assumed you would,” Lok replied. “They are good people,” he added. “They work hard and take care of one another.”
Wulf noted how serious the old trader’s face suddenly became. “Why are you so protective of them?”
Lok sighed. “Sokoras is a harsh place and living under Viktor’s rule makes it harder still. Budir isn’t the village you remember,” he said. “You will see when we arrive.”
Wulf studied him, his thoughts churning. “They have something, and Viktor doesn’t know.” Lok suddenly shifted nervously. “What have they done?”
The old trader shook his head and sighed. “They have made trade profitable again.”
Wulf’s curiosity was piqued. “How?”
“As I said, you will see when we get there,” Lok replied.
Lok’s face grew sterner and Wulf decided not to press the issue. He shifted in his saddle, turning his full attention to the road. Occasionally he would shift his gaze to the sea of pines on either side of them, mostly out of habit. Protecting them from bandits and other things in the Sokoran wilds was his job after all.
The next few hours were quiet, at least until Wulf saw smoke in the distance and caught smell of burning wood on the wind. Without waiting for Lok to comment he spurred his horse and bolted. The old trader’s shouts were nothing more than a din to his ears as he sped past the pines around him. It took a few minutes to reach the village, but as Budir came into view it was clear what had happened.
Wulf reigned his horse in, stopping just past what used to be the village’s main gate. He sat there, clenching the reigns, and stared at the devastation. There was only one group who would have done something like this.
The village was still smoldering. Each building looking like charred skeletons peeking out from the snow. Lok was right, Budir wasn’t the place he remembered. Even in ruins, he could tell it had grown a great deal over the years. The main thoroughfare leading to the center of the village was still a familiar sight.
Further in, as he walked the streets, Wulf saw corpses scattered about the center of the village. He drew closer examining the positions of the bodies and their wounds. A handful had tried to fight back, but the rest had been slaughtered.
As he surveyed the scene further, Wulf felt his stomach turn over when he found the bodies of two young women had been drug away from slaughter and brutalized. “Bodvar’s Blades…”
Wulf turned away. Shuet had been right, this can’t be allowed to go on. Still, the idea of sacrificing one of their own felt like a betrayal.
Wulf paced around taking great care where to step. He began memorizing the placement of each footstep and their patterns. As he did, he closed his eyes trying to get an idea of how the grisly scene had played out.
With the image slowly taking shape in his mind, Wulf noted that someone had fought against the Blades. While the other footprints and signs were more condensed before spreading out to loot and burn the village. There was pair whose moments showed they were engaged in a fierce fight.
As he retraced their steps, Wulf saw something metallic partially buried in the snow. He stepped closer and knelt, picking up. The metal was part of a sword that had been sundered.
There was still a bit of etching where its maker had left their mark on it. Wulf closed his eyes and traced his fingers across the markings. He felt the letters out, just barely making out the name ‘Druer’ on the engraving.
It was curious. Druer was one of Viktor’s best smiths. ‘Did your owner have a falling out with Bodvar?’ he whispered.
Wulf looked up. Lok and other traders were just pulling into the village. Even at a distance, it wasn’t hard to see they were horrified.
“You did this!” Lok screamed. “You tricked the stone somehow!”
The old trader was surprisingly quick as he strode up.
“Lok, I haven’t lied, and this wasn’t about me.”
“Really?!” he shouted. “Tell that to them! You assured me you weren’t on any list!”
The old man was holding the stone in his hand now, waving it about like he intended to do something with it. Instinctively, Wulf reached for one of his knives. Lok took notice and stepped back.
“Kill me and you die too!”
Wulf held his hands up. “Lok, calm down, and let me figure this out. You know I’m a Ranger, this is what I do.”
The old trader narrowed his eyes and tightened his lip. “You have until we unpack the tents. It’s not safe to travel at night this far north and we’ll need to burn the bodies before dawn.”
Wulf simply nodded. They would need to burn the bodies. Anyone who died this horrifically would come back as a Hungering One. It was part of the curse that some believe was placed on Sokoras since ancient times.
“I only need a few minutes, then we can gather and burn them.”
Lok didn’t offer up a response, he simply turned away with the other traders following behind him.
It was late into the evening by the time they had finished. Wulf had pulled a cloth over his nose to help with the smell of the burning bodies. Lok had calmed down and removed the enchantment as first agreed.
The old trader was still at a loss but had told him everything. It was still hard to believe that the people of Budir had managed something so incredible for this long. It explained a few things Wolf had noticed over the past six years.
Viktor’s a fool. Increasing the prosperity of his own domain benefits his long-term goals. To burn a town simply because it wasn’t paying taxes is beyond stupid. Unless something else was going on.
Wulf walked back to camp and into his tent. He knelt down by his pack and pulled the broken shard of the sword he had recovered from it. He then stood, left the tent, and sat by the fire with Lok and the other two traders.
“Souvenir?” Lok commented wryly.
“No, but I noticed a set of footprints leading away from the village from one of the burnt houses.”
“Survivor?” Lok asked curiously.
Wulf nodded. “If they are, this will tell me.”
“I’ve heard the rumors about you Rangers,” one of the other traders chimed in. Her name was Silv. “It’s true isn’t it. You can track someone just by having a personal item?”
“I’ll let you believe what you want,” Wulf replied.
Silv simply smiled, then turned away after Lok had glared at her. “Mind your business Silv. Whatever trouble this is, the less we know the better.”
Wulf couldn’t disagree, enough people had died already. “Lok, we’ll be parting ways here.” A loud haunting howl suddenly sound in the night. The air suddenly seemed to get colder.
“You should stay here for the night,” Lok said, placing a hand on Wulf’s shoulder. “As I said it’s not safe to travel at night this far north.”
The look on the old trader’s face made it hard not to take him seriously. “You don’t really believe the stories, do you?”
Lok narrowed his eyes. “Son, I’ve been a trader all my life and have spent a lot of time travelling these wilds,” he replied. “As Ranger you should know better than to dismiss things as mere story. I haven’t survived to be this by being a fool.”
Wulf shifted his gave to the fire then looked at the broken sword shard. He closed his eyes and began feeling out the connection it shared to its owner. He felt a thread, it was faint but it was there. Its owner was still alive, but for how long was the question.
“Wait till the morning,” Lok insisted. “You can do whatever afterward.”